Wednesday, December 21, 2011


SELCO has traditionally almost exclusively sold personal photovoltaic systems: they have come up with various innovative ways to help people afford the systems and acquire loans, but the product has always been the same. SELCO Labs, the division I’m a part of, is only a couple of years old and is essentially the ‘innovations’ department, developing new products and services. Last week I visited Chitradurga, a district renowned for its high wind speeds, to scope out locations for SELCO to trial wind turbine systems and some of the other projects we’re working on, so this is probably a good point to fill you in on some of the our other work...

In the past, SELCO have been highly praised for our ability to provide for people in slums, but slums are still a notoriously difficult market to reach and there are many locations where the standard SELCO model just can’t work. The dwellers generally don’t own the land and can be moved on at any time, so they are unwilling to invest in anything which cannot be easily transported if needed. On top of this, if the landlords see that the people are establishing themselves (and investing in things like electricity), they will often kick the people off to stop them getting too settled. Banks are also unwilling to lend money to people without a fixed address. The biggest electricity need of these people is lighting, to replace their dim and unhealthy kerosene lamps and so one new model from SELCO Labs, which has been pretty successful so far, is to rent out electric lanterns. SELCO find a local entrepreneur who is willing to manage a central charging station and then the people pay a certain amount each day to rent their lighting. The guys from this unelectrified roadside slum seemed interested in the program so hopefully they’ll have lighting soon if everything works out.

Another project we’re investigating is how to implement mini-grid systems to power a cluster of houses from a central power station. Large photovoltaic systems are cheaper per watt of power and so these systems can offer reasonable cost reductions, however they come with a whole host of social issues to overcome, such as how do you decide who pays what and who covers maintenance, how much electricity can each person use, how do you prevent people bypassing their meter etc. We are yet to set up any mini-grids, but this rural slum could be a great location for our first trial. The guys don’t currently have legal rights to the land, but apparently they have been granted ownership and will be looking to upgrade their dwellings once the paperwork comes through. Being in such a windy location, this may also be a great site to put a wind turbine further down the line as these guys’ electricity requirements increase.

This remote village only got a (dirt) road to it a few years ago and is still very underdeveloped. The villagers are subsistence farmers and only receive an income twice a year, when they take particular harvests to market, and so banks are unwilling to lend them money even though they own their land. We managed to arrange for some of them to get our systems a couple of years ago and we’re now trying to find some way the others can manage to afford them.

Whilst driving around Chitradurga, we also stopped off at this example of some of SELCO’s standard systems which have allowed street sellers to operate at night and increase their income (you can see the little solar panels sticking up from the carts). The guy nearest is obviously such a big fan of SELCO that he’s painted our logo on his cart!

And here’s one final project I visited whilst in Chitradurga: a (probably) one off project to kit a school bus out with laptops and solar panels, which will then be carted around a cluster of schools running IT classes for the students. This seems like a great project and the computer skills taught should open up a load of opportunities for the kids, but unfortunately it’s difficult to do these kinds of projects without donor funding, like we had for this one, as there is no revenue to make it self-sufficient.

I got a chance to visit the famous Chitradurga Fort whilst there, an impressive structure with seven concentric rings of fortification. This is also home to 'the human monkey', who was originally thought mad when he made his home in the walls but has now become a media sensation for his impressive climbing skills. This is him abseiling down one of the walls without any ropes; leaving the wall entirely as he drops several feet at a time between hand-holds.

Unsurprisingly, he's developed a bit of a following and this is one of his 'students' who clearly still has a bit to learn as he hangs on only with the help of some others.

Before I got to Ujire, the lab took on a project with a university economics professor who had designed a vertical axis wind turbine and wanted us to help him test it. At the time we agreed to it, there was unfortunately no-one around in the lab who knew enough about wind turbines to realise that the guys didn't know what they were doing and the turbine is pretty much a piece of junk. It's been something of a dark shadow in the lab ever since. Tommy and I have finally got round to getting a stand made for it, found potentially the windiest site in the area (which still isn’t saying much and it's pretty difficult to get away from trees here!) and put it all together and installed it. After a few modifications, it now turns, but we’re yet to see if it will generate any worthwhile power and it certainly won’t reach the 108% efficiency which the designers have somehow predicted in their calculations!

We were visited by a group of 25 entrepreneurs who all own solar companies in various different parts of Africa. Our lab hosted them for the last day of their five day, NGO funded, trip to India to learn more about how SELCO works and get advice for how they can run things in their own countries. In the evening we organised a meal followed by a traditional local dance/play. The play was quite good fun and involved some impressive costumes, although with everything spoken in Kannada and without much actual movement onstage, even the two and a half hour shortened version was a bit much for me and Tommy (the original is supposed to take over eight hours!) and we left early. Apparently by the end there were no Africans around either...

This will probably be my last blog post before Christmas so I wish you all a very merry and significant Christmas! In India, Christmas is celebrated, but it’s just one more occasion in a multitude of different festivals that happen throughout the year. There are some plastic stars for sale in some of the shops at the moment and I saw a van driving around the other day playing loud Indian music with some guys dressed as Father Christmas with green facepaint standing in the back, but apart from these odd things there's nothing to let you know it’s only a few days away. And it’s difficult to feel Christmassy when the temperature is still reaching 35 degrees most days! For someone who’s always felt so disillusioned by the superficial and commercial Christmases of the West, I’m amazed at how much I miss all the festivities and the lights and the buzz. Tommy, Roger and I are planning to take a few days off work and head to the beach for our Christmas. We’ve booked our train tickets, although all the lodges we've called seems to be either fully booked or just tell us to turn up on the day so we’ll just have to try the latter and see what happens.

That pretty much concludes the blog but here are a few other photos:

                         There were also some real monkeys at the fort

             They hadn't quite finished loading the roof of our nightbus when I took this
             photo. I was assured that the roofs are designed to take this kind of weight,
             but the constant swaying/shearing motion on the way back was a bit
             disconcerting. And we did get two punctures...

             Some wind turbines around Chitradurga

             And some slum puppies

Thursday, December 8, 2011


It seems like there aren’t many weeks that go by without some kind of festival or celebration here in India, but last week held Lakshadeepa, one of the larger ones in this region. It’s another festival of light and is famously celebrated in Dharmasthala, the next town along, with a four day carnival which thousands flock to from the surrounding area. The streets become filled with various stalls and entertainments (including a rather perilous looking funfair) and the whole town is covered in tiny lightbulbs. I ended up spending a reasonable bit of time there helping to man the SELCO stall, which was mainly advertising our solar lighting systems but we had a bit showing off some agricultural machines too in the hope of catching some farmers to talk to.

Tommy, Roger and I decided to partake in Movember this year. I would love to say that we did our bit in raising awareness for men’s health issues but unfortunately, with about 90% of the blokes here sporting a tash, I think our efforts were slightly lost in translation. Before finally shaving it off, I thought it would be sensible to get my moustache professionally trimmed. And I figured there were probably few places in the world more experienced at doing it than a South Indian barber’s. I was indeed very impressed with my 25 rupee cut (about 35p), which left my tash in top shape and came with a free (very vigorous) head massage, about 6 different face ointments, and no cuts!

The design for the next prototype of the thresher is now finished and it’s ready to be built. As of yet we’ve always used workshops in Ujire to do the fabrication for prototypes but they can be quite slow and aren’t great at more detailed parts so as the designs start to get more advanced we need to investigate new options. Mangalore is a much larger city and holds lots of workshops which are ideal for the kind of work we need but many of these larger places are only interested in big orders so it can be tough to find workshops willing to make one-off prototypes. I needed to get some bearings and pulleys from Mangalore last Wednesday so I took the opportunity to search out somewhere to get our thresher made and through a suggestion from one of SELCO's contacts managed to find a workshop willing. It's run by a qualified mechanical engineer who seems very interested in our projects and keen to be involved (and also speaks good English which simplifies things a lot) so if it all works out this could make manufacturing a lot easier in the future.

At the weekend I had to make another trip to Bangalore to open a bank account and got to spend a nice bit of time with David and Kevin again. The bank I was recommended is everything you expect and Indian bank should be: a chaotic, stuffy room with barricades of women at desks which you need to navigate before you can get anything done, endless forms and run on an archaic system of paper and floppy disks (that's not actually a joke: there were stacks of paper and genuine floppy disks all over the clerks' desks). In order to open a bank account, you need to be proposed by someone already holding an account with that bank (as well as provide all the letters and other pieces of paperwork of course), but the bank manager had kindly agreed to propose me when I visited on a previous trip to Bangalore so that wasn't too much of a problem in the end. What was more of an issue was that due to a technical fault, a large number of people could't withdraw any money from the ATMs that day and so were coming into the bank to get their cash. And the protocol seems to be that it is the bank managers job to deal with withdrawals so I ended up stuck in his office for over two hours while he tried to complete my paperwork amid dishing out payments of anything from £10 upwards to disgruntled customers and running the bank. Anyway, I now have my very own Indian bank account which feels quite cool; let's hope the bank doesn't lose all my money!

-Oh, and I've made it into my first Indian paper (click here), which is published all over Karnataka. I'll try to get in one that's written in English next time though...

             Now that we've kitted the kitchen out, we've been cooking a bit more for
             ourselves. This is an attempt at pasta sauce: difficult without any herbs but
             it just about works.

And some other photos...

             One of the thresher tests rained off

             A farmer's kids collecting tender coconuts for us to drink

                           An ox

             And a little chick